Representing Benjamin

Brian Ferneyhough’s “Shadowtime” and philosophy

Lois Fitch
Ferneyhough has long been interested in Walter Benjamin’s philosophy, at least since the time of Lemma-Icon-Epigram and Kurze Schatten II. His opera Shadowtime offers the largest scale interaction with Benjaminian thought of his career to date, beginning with a first scene (of seven) in which the main character, Benjamin, arrives at the Spanish border in 1940, to be refused entry and consequently safe passage to America. The remaining six scenes imagine Benjamin’s descent into the underworld following his suicide, without any more explicit narrative: the descent is portrayed allegorically, along with the elaboration of Benjaminian concepts, among which is his “Angel of History”(embodied by the choir). Shadowtime presents the peculiarity of being a double work, an investigation of Benjamin’s concepts in both musical and poetic form (Bernstein's libretto being published as a free-standing literary work). This essay will present a reading of Shadowtime’s philosophical context, focusing on the many types of time invoked (including Benjamin’s reading of history and his concept of the eternal present, “now time” [Jeztzeit]), Bernstein’s “sound poetry” and Ferneyhough’s treatment of these concepts in musical terms.

by moxi